Policy Article

Spreading Care for a World Without Borders

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  • Dennis J. Snower
Publication Date

The world stands at the brink of a new era, an era of “problems without borders”. For the more interconnected we become, economically and technologi

Kiel Institute Expert

Natural upheavals: Climate change, biodiversity loss and depletion of critical resources threatens to make the world less habitable.
Technological upheavals: Moore's Law, whereby our information processing power doubles every two years, implies that our technological capabilities threaten to outrun our psychological, organizational, social and political adaptability. Nowadays Big Data and Smart Machines are poised to replace much of nowadays unskilled, blue-collar and routine white-collar work.

Demographic and social upheavals: The massive increase in the world's human Population—especially in poor and politically unstable countries—together with weapons proliferation and climate change, is beginning to create extraordinary waves of migration and social disruption.

These problems can be addressed only by trans-national and trans-cultural cooperation.

However we live in a world of national and cultural borders, many of which are being drawn more sharply. Since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed a resurgence of nationalist sentiment and independence movements; religious and ethnic conflict is spreading; the rise of inequality within and across countries is creating borders of identity and political purpose.

Many people think that these borders can be broken down only through finding a bedrock of normative agreement across nations, cultures and religions. Can we find such a common set of moral values across our many borders? Can such universal values deliver the cooperation required by our problems without borders?

Among experts in the relevant disciplines, there is broad agreement on the answers to these two questions. Yes, we can find a common set of moral values by which most of the world's people feel bound. These values recognize importance of love for our neighbor, care for the vulnerable, fairness in dealing with our equals, loyalty to the social groups offering us support, exercising power responsibly, resisting domination and preserving our liberty, promoting achievement and personal growth, and seeking mental, physical and spiritual health.

Regarding the second question, the answer however appears to be No. The reason is that many of our values are in conflict with one another, and there is no agreement on which values are to be applied to which situations.

This becomes clear when we consider the sources of morality, meant to give legitimacy to our moral judgments and specify their application. (1) Do what God or some moral authority enjoins you to do. This is the approach of some religions. (2) Be a good person. This approach, virtue ethics, allows for multiple virtues. (3) Do what is right. This approach generates all our conceptions human rights, animal rights and environmental rights. (4) Do what leads to the best consequences. This approach dominates the discipline of economics. However, these sources have not been successful in creating uniformity in the application of our values. None of these approaches tells everyone unambiguously what to do in all circumstances.

In the course of our daily lives, each of us follows multiple—often conflicting—moral directions. The conflicts among our principles, along with the resulting moral anguish, are a common human experience. Sometimes we do what we feel is right, regardless of consequences (as when the poor refuse to steal from the rich, even when it is clear that the thieves would not be caught and that they would gain more than their victims lose). Sometimes we aim for the best consequences, regardless of what we may consider right a priori (as when we favor the rehabilitation of prisoners, even when we feel that retribution is deserved). Often we encounter conflicts among our conceptions of what is right. Should economic policies reward achievement, support those in need, or uphold property rights? We are pulled in one direction, then in another.

National, cultural, ethnic and religious conflict arises despite common values because people apply different values to their community members than to strangers and enemies. The inhabitants of warring countries are all benevolent to their own families; war occurs because they are not benevolent to one another. Social borders lead people to apply their values in conflicting ways. The revenge killer deals with his victim by applying the value of Reciprocal Fairness; while the victim's family pursues the value of Care. This is why appeals to our conscience, our sense of justice and fairness, our benevolence are so ineffective in overcoming our conflicts.

The implication of this argument is clear. To tackle our global problems, we must seek not universal values—which we already have—but the dismantling of our social borders. We must extend our social affiliations, in order to harmonize the application of our values.

Our social in-Groups—such as the family, an office community or a sports Club—have something important in common: they are all characterized by an interchangeability of perspectives. When we take other people's perspectives into account alongside our own, in the course of our relationships with them, we are automatically induced to cooperate with them in some form. The values of the group are appropriate to the group’s social relations, and these values are applied to people within, but not outside, the group.

Of all the moral values available to us, there is one that entails the greatest interchangeability of perspectives and thus promotes the most encompassing, profound and flexible motive for cooperation among humans. It is the value of Care, since it involves promoting the wellbeing of others and alleviating their suffering.

Atrocities become possible when there is no interchangeability of perspectives and, in particular, when there is no presumption of Care. To kill, soldiers are taught to dehumanize their enemies, enabling them to disconnect from their enemies’ perspectives. A similar disconnection took place between the Serbs and Croats when Yugoslavia dissolved, between the Hutus and the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide, and so on. The Nazis did not lack moral values; they just did not apply them to the Jews, since they saw no aspect of the world through Jewish eyes.

In institutional contexts, no one actual kills people. Soldiers have killed Nips, Huns, Terrs; gangs have killed kikes, wops, spics, honkies; Klansmen have killed niggers—but not people. In order for brutality to occur along sustained, systematic lines, perspectival disconnection appears essential. This is generally driven through disconnection narratives, such as "Mein Kampf" or war propaganda.

The broader and greater the interchangeability of perspectives, particularly through Care, the greater the willingness to cooperate with one another.

But extending our circle of Care is difficult, since our evolutionary past has not adequately prepared us for this challenge. According to the philosopher and neuroscientist Joshua Greene, the human experience in hunter-gatherer and early agricultural societies prepared humans to deal with the "Me-Us" Problem, that is, the problem of controlling our self-interest in favor of our social groups. Accordingly, our moral values can be viewed as psychological adaptations enabling selfish individuals to enjoy the benefits of cooperation. What we are not prepared for, Greene argues, is the "Us-Them Problem," which involves cooperation with social groups that have now come into contact with one another through globalization and ICT technologies, but were separate from one another in our evolutionary past. In other words, the morality that evolved in our brains was suited for cooperation within social groups, in the context of established social relationships, but not across groups.

We must now learn how to dismantle our borders and widen our circle of Care. This is the central challenge. Only if we succeed, we can tackle our problems without borders.

We know that humans have the potential to rise to this challenge, since we have managed feats of comprehensive Care before, as when we transformed slavery from an acceptable form of international business into a globally acknowledged evil. A major force driving this transformation was perspective-taking. Through books like "Uncle Tom's Cabin," political activism and media reports, people around the world gradually came to regard slaves as beings of ultimate intrinsic worth, eventually leading to the criminalization of salary in country after country.

Over the past few decades we have witnessed an analogous revaluation of womanhood and, more recently, of homosexuality in many countries. Europe's refugee crisis should be viewed as a golden opportunity to initiate the educational, legal and cultural initiatives required for perspective-taking beyond our current national, cultural and religious borders.

What we now need is a new narrative that generates a common identity across current borders. Obviously it is neither feasible nor desirable to disassemble our existing identities for this purpose. All that is required is that we nourish a global identity, alongside our existing ones, that is just sufficient to address our global problems through interchangeable perspectives and the beginnings of Care.

We need social norms, education, laws and institutions in order to widen our circle of Care and to be enabled to solve our global problems. If we see the world through the eyes of people who have hitherto been strangers to us, we will find ourselves on the way towards cooperation with them, driven by mutual Care.

(This article summarizes central aspects of Dennis Snower’s opening address at the Global Economic Symposium.)


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